Time's "machine of the year 1982" was the computer. This year, computers and video games will be even better. Players will be able to act the part of characters in their favorite TV shows while a microcomputer allows the story to unfold in response to the players' decisions. Children in better-off homes and schools will use their microcomputers to widen the gap between them and most poor youngsters.

Unfortunately, computers and other sophisticated technology will be used only infrequently to reduce illiteracy among the 25 million Americans who cannot read or write. Few makers of sophisticated video games will turn their attention to improving the work skills of the 72 million Americans who are functionally illiterate. Those who are developing sophisticated computer-controlled video courses for the military will not be using their talents to help the 30 million Americans who do not speak English well enough to function adequately in the job market. The software companies are unlikely to venture forth with home computer courses for the 47 percent of black 17-year-olds olds and 56 percent of Hispanics who are functionally illiterate.

Nor will the new technology often help those whose jobs are threatened by robots and computers in the work place. Workers dislocated by technological change and imports will generally have to rely on older, more traditional methods of training, when they can get that.

The failure to apply the new technology to the training and education of the unskilled, the uneducated and the unemployed is unfortunate because there is powerful evidence that computer-assisted education works. Recently, the Education Testing Service released the results of a four-year study of the benefits of 10 to 20 minutes of daily computer drill in mathematics, reading and language skills for poor elementary school children in Los Angeles. The results were improvements of 15 to 40 percent over the control groups.

The newest technology combines a computer with a videotape or video disc machine to provide interactive video. The National Science Foundation financed an evaluation of this technology in teaching college-level biology. Students with access to interactive video reduced their study time by 30 to 40 percent while their test performance was 15 to 25 percent better than that of the control group. Interactive video technology is used by the military, banks and drug companies. It is used to sell GM cars and Neiman-Marcus gifts, but not to train the unemployed in the United States.

The reasons for the failure are simple. Neither the private nor the public sector is organized to make the substantial investment in computer and video courses that is needed. Most educators and trainers are not comfortable with the technology, and those who are do not have access to the up-front investment. Academic publishers prefer giving a small advance to a known academic writer rather than plunking down $250,000 for a project in a relatively new technology. When the publishers do invest, moreover, it is unlikely to be for training the disadvantaged or for retraining dislocated workers.

Companies habitually under-invest in training. A major hotel chain recently decided not to teach English to new Haitian staff for fear of losing them once they were equipped to go elsewhere. The mobility of U.S. labor--the willingness of American workers to change jobs--makes it uneconomical for our corporations to invest as heavily in human resources as, for example, the Japanese. This tendency is especially strong for entry-level workers.

Recognizing this tendency, Congress and the administration are generally willing to make some public investment in training. The recently passed Job Training Cooperation Act authorizes training services for disadvantaged and dislocated workers. Although that bill gives a major role to the states, it generally retains the decentralized system that prevailed under CETA. Hundreds of local entities will buy training services from community colleges or other local service providers. This system is too decentralized to take advantage of the new technology. Few individual service providers can afford the front-end investment of $250,000 to $1 million for course development.

Moreover, the training procurement systems are too diverse and bureaucratic to bring forth the needed private sector investment on the part of the computer or software companies. It is much less risky to develop a game or produce courseware for the military.

Our federally financed training system needs a way to bring the benefits of new technology to the problems of illiteracy and retraining. A new national institute might be the means for achieving the proper economies of scale. Alternatively, a relatively few regional centers may provide needed competition for the best courses while reflecting the different concerns of, for example, Detroit, Miami and Los Angeles. These regional institutions should develop and evaluate courses for computer-based training. They should also help the operators of the decentralized system pick their way through the maze of available materials.

There is a widely recognized need to increase productivity so that the output of American workers is competitive in the international marketplace. Most reject the alternatives of either protectionism or a continuing increase in structural unemployment. The training effort, however, must be efficient and apply available technology. We need to ensure that computers are used to help those hurt most by the introduction of new technology into the work place.